Jim Henson: America’s Most Wanted

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It's not easy being without a genius.
It's not easy being without a genius.
It’s not easy being without a genius.

When I was a child, I believed in a god and his name was Jim Henson. At the time, I may not have known much about the tall, gangly, bearded puppeteer who voiced Kermit the Frog and Ernie, but the omnipresent images of Henson were inseparable from the art form he transformed. How could they not be? Courtesy of Henson’s sweeping imagination, wooden, expressionless puppets and threadbare stringed marionettes gave way to rainbow-shaded, fleece-covered, polyfoam concoctions. These newfangled Muppets (a blend of the word marionette and puppet) had deliciously zippy personalities; their emotions were perfectly in keeping with the singularity of their whimsical designs. These characters sang songs and frolicked, and they could frown as easily as they smiled. The Muppets, inanimate creations with boundlessly animated spirits, made you forget the performers who channeled them, and for as long as you enjoyed their blissful company, you were thoroughly enveloped in their reality.

Henson’s wife Jane, the mother of his five children, once described it thusly in Time magazine:

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What Jim saw is that the puppet is as powerful as a human being. And in fact is more powerful — less concerned about what it looks like, more direct, more able to go to the heart of things.

In what turned out to be a tragic irony on the immortality of puppets over puppeteers, Henson’s jubilant band of frogs, pigs, bears, gonzos and cookie monsters turned out to be more enduring than the man who birthed them. Twenty-four years ago this May, Jim Henson died at 53 from a rare infection that took his life far earlier than he ever thought it could or would. (Henson once remarked that he anticipated living into his 80’s.) He ignored persistent flu-like symptoms and ended up with a bloody cough. Henson’s ultimate cause of death was streptococcal toxic shock syndrome, which resulted in organ failure. And for fans of Henson, still at his prolific, ingenious best, it was the end of an era, if not a brand.

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At the time of his death, Henson was negotiating a sale of his Muppet enterprise to The Walt Disney Company for a price tag in the neighborhood of $150 million dollars. Although the Muppets were eventually acquired by Disney in 2004, what followed Henson’s death was a long period in the wilderness where Henson’s heirs ran the show. Up until three years ago, feeble films like Muppets from Space and Muppet Treasure Island were released in an attempt to reclaim the giddy, haloed years of big screen Muppet glory. More than that, Henson’s long-time muse and co-conspirator Frank Oz, the voice of Bert, Fozzie and porcine diva Miss Piggy, has little use for the new Muppet restoration, particularly the 2011 movie The Muppets, which attempted to reboot the long dormant franchise he helped build. In an interview with celebuzz.com, Oz sneered, “I’m glad others enjoyed it.” He continued:

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I thought the script wasn’t forward enough. I thought it was going backwards. And I thought it was too sweet. Because the Muppets are not sweet. They shouldn’t be cute. It was a little bit too smarmy and cute for me. The Muppets always hated cuteness.

Many of the later Muppet features, truth be told, were charm-free facsimiles of the earlier and sparkling flicks, particularly the original The Muppet Movie (1979) and The Great Muppet Caper (1981), which took the road picture and caper genres and suffused them with quintessential Broadway brio and vaudevillian oomph. As it happens, Henson’s childhood was spent in awe of comedy legends such as George Burns and Bob Hope. Later, when his own career blossomed, he worked with these and other funnymen in his movies as well as numerous other celebrities on the long-running The Muppet Show, where they were featured as weekly guest stars. These influences were much of the reason why the Muppets fused meta-comedy with Borscht Belt-flavored quips and sight gags so expertly. Henson also championed quirky yet contagiously tuneful songs, both new and old, which accounted for a soundtrack boasting as much gold-plated charisma as the characters themselves. Songsmiths like Joe Raposo of “Rubber Duckie” and “It Aint Easy Bein’ Green” fame penned telltale Muppet ditties, along with pop music scribes like Paul Williams, who proved a hit-maker writing for The Carpenters. Raposo’s reliably mood-lifting melodies and Williams’ heart-melting ballads (“The Rainbow Connection” is another one) only burnished a showbiz alchemy that was already sui generis and irresistible.

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In the corporate repackaging machine that is modern-day Hollywood, Disney, being an entertainment conglomerate, is less interested in the Muppets, per se, than in cryogenics. Unlike an earlier time when a scrappy British entertainment mogul called Lord Lew Grade agreed to produce The Muppet Show (and two of its first three feature films) after the American television networks passed on the idea, Disney’s fiscal mandate is to regenerate Henson’s zany puppet universe — another way of saying that the company has to reconcile the franchise with the reality of demographics. Although its first resurrection of The Muppets, released two-and-a-half years ago, performed robustly at the box office and spawned an Academy Award-winning song, the novelty has vanished all too quickly. The Muppets Most Wanted, this year’s sequel, has already been a disappointment both in its critical reception and commercial appeal. Despite the success of the first foray of the merry old gang back on celluloid, The Muppets, starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams, had familiarity and nostalgia on its side, but Henson’s absence in voice and in spirit was palpably apparent. The film was amiable but synthetic; similar to the present, flavorless sequel with Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais, it sinfully relegated the Muppets to a secondary position beneath the stars. Both films offer a ham-handed inversion of Henson’s masterful template: letting the Muppets invite a well known entertainer into their self-contained world and, via their myriad charms and foibles, seducing the visitor with their trademark showbiz-laden fairy dust.

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Henson wanted to sell the Muppets so he could enjoy a creative autonomy that was impossible when he was both an artist and a mini-studio head. Disney seemed the obvious choice since the indelible stamp that Walt Disney himself embossed on the popular imagination wasn’t too shabby a standard. But he died. Henson and only Henson could create a sketch where a gigantic, tuxedo-clad carrot could do a Gilbert and Sullivan patter duet with Gilda Radner. Or where a ballerina who also happened to be a pig could dance “Swine Lake” with Rudolf Nureyev. This was not garden-variety shtick. On television and on film, the Muppets had a variety show to call its own — a chaotic, affectionately flamboyant circus of which they were the collective ringmasters. The list of willing participants was endless: Richard Pryor, Diana Ross, Steve Martin, Dom DeLuise, Bernadette Peters, John Cleese, Gregory Hines, Julie Andrews and countless others all yearned for other platforms on which to thrive, and Henson gifted that to them through his inspired creative playground. They shined in the forum that was all things Muppet; they needed him to gift it. Nearly a quarter-century later, we still need him too.

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